AIDS vaccine research finds stride at UC Santa Cruz

Phillip Berman, the Baskin Professor of Biomolecular Engineering at UC Santa Cruz
Phillip Berman, the Baskin Professor of Biomolecular Engineering at UC Santa Cruz | C. Lagattuta

There’s a lab operating in the Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where a veteran AIDS vaccine researcher has developed new vaccine candidates that are promising enough to consider advancing into clinical trials possibly within the next two years.

“The reason we’re working on an AIDS vaccine is that we want to control this global pandemic that has ravaged a large percentage of the human population,” said Phillip W. Berman, the Baskin Professor of Biomolecular Enngineering at UC Santa Cruz. “Almost three million people are infected by HIV every year and of those, about 300,000 are children.”

The ultmate goal for Berman and his lab staff is to have a vaccine that may be used worldwide to prevent HIV infection, he said.

That’s been Berman’s objective for almost 30 years, first as a principal scientist at the biotech company, Genentech Inc.; then as senior vice president of research and development at VaxGen, which he cofounded; and now at UC Santa Cruz, where he’s been since 2006 establishing a major vaccine research effort largely funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Berman’s ongoing efforts are bearing fruit with the redesign of AIDSVAX, a vaccine he invented while at Genentech and then led through clinical testing at VaxGen. AIDSVAX was used in combination with another experimental vaccine in a large-scale clinical trial in Thailand involving 16,000 people. The trial -- known as RV 144 – showed that the combined vaccine was safe and 31 percent effective in preventing new HIV infections.

While the RV144 vaccine trial was successful, Berman said, the federal government wants results showing more than 60-percent effectiveness. “The virus is highly variable so we have to develop a vaccine that is effective against all the strains of virus that are circulating in the world,” he said.

Specifically, the complex virus is covered with a cloud of carbohydrate that prevents the binding of antibodies to the surface of the virus. Berman said there are a rare group of individuals known as “elite neutralizers” who produce antibodies that potently neutralize multiple strains of the virus and effectively destroy the virus.

According to the university, Berman's lab is currently developing cell lines genetically engineered to produce viral proteins with the right structure and glycan epitopes to bind to broadly neutralizing antibodies. Such strong binding suggests that vaccination with these antigens could stimulate the immune system to produce the broadly neutralizing antibodies.

“We know where these antibodies bind,” Berman said.

At the same time, part of the challenge of making an effective vaccine, Berman said, is finding a way to manufacture it in a cost-effective and efficient fashion. “And that’s one of the expertises we have here” at UC Santa Cruz, he added.

Another part of his team’s work, Berman said, “is to train the next generation of scientists that will be anble to respond to the next outbreaks that come along.”

Organizations in this Story

National Institutes of Health

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